San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Will Mexico export its drug war?

By María Isabel Sánchez | AFP

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and colleagues from Central America agreed on Wednesday in a San José summit to join forces in a united front against transnational drug trafficking and extreme violence caused by organized crime.

Summit leaders also forged a new commitment to improve relations on political, economic and social issues. 

“We have common problems and we want to form a united front against them, against the violence and the presence of organized criminal elements who operate at a transnational level,” Peña Nieto said at a press conference at the conclusion of a Central America-Mexico summit held this week in Costa Rica.

The Mexican president said leaders must “define and expand mechanisms for more efficient cooperation,” including intelligence-sharing and the use of new technologies to halt the spread of organized crime in the region. 

Other leaders participating in the summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA), presided for the next six months by Costa Rica, included Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. El Salvador and Nicaragua – whose president, Daniel Ortega, maintains tense relations with Costa Rica – sent lower-level officials to represent their countries. Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla hosted the event.

Violence Without Borders

Otto Pérez

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, left, has called for a debate on the legalization of drugs. His counterparts from the region haven’t jumped on board with the idea. Ezequiel Becerra | AFP

Mexico and Central America share a recent history of violence, coupled with a public security response promoted by officials in Washington against powerful Mexican drug cartels including Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel. Those cartels have allied with regional street gangs and local drug traffickers to form a dangerous hemispheric network. 

Illicit drug trafficking and organized crime have turned Central America into the deadliest region outside of a combat zone, following the tactical decision by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón to wage an armed conflict against the cartels, resulting in the deaths of almost 70,000 people in Mexico alone since 2005. The battle against the cartels has forced the violence to spill across Mexico’s borders into neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. 

“We have valiantly and bravely done battle with organized crime, but it hasn’t always been as effective as we’d hoped,” Costa Rica’s Chinchilla said. “In Central America, there have been valiant and relevant debates about how to confront the problem.” 

Pérez Molina insisted on the need for a different strategy against illicit drugs, saying that repressive tactics implemented in the past four decades have failed, putting the region at risk of more deaths and allowing the illegal enterprises to expand. 

“This is an issue that continues generating debate; that hasn’t subsided,” Pérez Molina said. “It takes time, and unfortunately the rhythm of violence, drug trafficking, arms trafficking and death continues increasing, and we need to put forth alternative strategies.” 

Peña Nieto promised a change of strategy through more intelligence-sharing among regional governments, but he has not wavered on a policy of battling drug traffickers head-on with members of the armed forces. 

Honduras, Central America’s second-poorest nation, has suffered the worst of the violence, becoming a de facto landing strip for clandestine drug flights. Guatemala has been infiltrated by deadly cartels, particularly Los Zetas. And El Salvador has seen a reprieve from recent violence brought by a gang truce sealed a year ago. 

Some 90 percent of cocaine destined for consumers in the United States passes through Central America and Mexico. 

Human trafficking was also on the summit agenda, as an estimated 140,000 Central Americans travel through Mexico each year on their way to the U.S. in pursuit of the “American dream,” although aid groups say that number could be three times as high. Many of those immigrants face dangers including robbery, extortion, kidnapping and rape from armed gangs.  

Peña Nieto said Mexico’s policy on the issue is “absolute respect for the human rights of immigrants,” adding that “we are working” with Central American leaders on the issue. 

Strategic Alliance

Security and the war on drugs weren’t the only issues on the summit agenda this week, as leaders sought to strengthen trade relations, and cooperate on joint transportation, energy and environmental programs. Those goals will be set by a new Mexico-Central America Association Agreement. 

México, with 115 million residents, and Central America, with 45 million, signed a free-trade agreement that unified separate trade agreements with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the group of CA-3, composed of the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Peña Nieto said that the agreement, already ratified by Mexico and several Central American countries, “would allow us to take advantage of a potential market of 160 million consumers.” 

Trade relations between Mexico and Central America have expanded by more than a factor of five in the past decade, totaling $10 billion, according to the Mexican president, who returned to Mexico on Wednesday. 

Summit leaders agreed to have their respective foreign ministers outline a strategy on trade, security and political dialogue in a meeting to be held no later than March 31.

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